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Terrific Family Ski Vacations are Possible

I began my own skiing career at Hog's Back Park in Ottawa-a simple incline of a hill with no tows, no warming huts, no benches even where you could sit down to lace up your boots. Instructors stood at the bottom shouting for each beginner to descend in turn. It took about 6 seconds, even at slow speed, but it was a difficult trudge up even for those who were not hampered by too-long skis or wet woolen mitts. It was only after a friend's dad began including me on trips to the nearby Gatineau Hills that I discovered what skiing was-amazing winter fun.

Today, kids as young as three are gliding down hills, doing "pizzas" (snowplow position) and "French fries" (skis together) and having a ball. Resort owners know that these junior schussers are future customers. No longer does the preschool set stay in daycare while Mom and Dad take to the hills. These days, junior is skiing alongside kids his own age supervised by a qualified instructor. Kids have their own clubhouses such as the new teen centre at Smugglers' Notch or Whistler's new ski school building in B.C. There, halfway up the gondola, some 500 Ski Scamps and Wee Scamps (three- and four-year-olds) can do lunch and make it easily back to the slopes. Kids also have their own skiing playgrounds such as the new Adventure Garden at Talisman Mountain Resort in Kimberley, Ont. And lifts: last season, Snow Valley near Barrie launched Canada's first conveyor belt for beginning skiers; Whistler boasts lifts with easy grab-handles.

Resorts are also catering to snowboarders, those neon-clad surfers who conquer half-pipes (troughs carved into the snow) at full tilt. Ski areas (such as Mt. St. Louis Moonstone in Coldwater, Ont.) have added snowboard parks and additional snowboard rental equipment for those who are hurrying to take up the sport. Others such as Smuggler's Notch offer week-long Snowboard Camps for kids 7 and up with special holiday sessions for teens.

If yours is not a skiing family, don't worry. Hundreds of trained instructors stand ready and more than 100 ski areas across the country offer a Discover Skiing/Snowboarding package for the first-time skiier. On average, $29.95 gives you equipment, lessons, and a lift ticket.

Although some resorts offer instruction to those still in diapers-I've seen toddlers in harness and crash helmet attached to an instructor-most operators don't start lessons before three. Even then, it's more about having fun in the snow than perfecting a turn. Here's a smattering of resorts within a day's drive of Toronto that are particularly friendly to families. The prices quoted cover a March break ski week for myself and my three skiers, ages 11, 14 and 15. It's expensive when kids are older (many resorts let kids 10 and under ski and stay free), but it's cheaper than taking the crew to the Caribbean. And the kids have often declared our March break skiing holiday one of the best.
MONT-TREMBLANT: Some $260 million has created a new Tremblant village at the base of the 2100-ft. Laurentian resort north of Montréal. Some 70 trails cover both sides of the mountain; 6 high-speed chairs zip people up. All season, from Monday to Thursday, Tremblant offers four-day ski or snowboard instruction sessions. We appreciated Tremblant's expertise, after-ski activities, and joie de vivre when we were there a few years ago. Apparently it's even better now. Tour organizers 5 Seasons/ Ski Fo (1-800-361-1654) offer a one-bedroom condo for five nights, lift tickets, transportation to the hill and even transportation for all of us from Toronto to the resort via train and video-coach bus for $2,356. Ski school ($115 for 12 and under; otherwise $130 for the four days) would be extra. Call 1-800-461-8711.
GRAY ROCKS: This family ski centre in the Laurentians near Tremblant, with its 20 runs and excellent ski school, offers rooms in its historic on-site hotel equipped with pool and daycare. Ski weeks offer 7 days of skiing, all meals, tips, and 22 hours of lessons. Add two superior rooms for a total of $3,202 ($1240 for me, $654 for kids between 10 and 16). Call 1-800-567-6767.
MONT SAINTE-ANNE: Only 25 miles from Quebec City, Eastern Canada's largest sports resort offers 51 downhill runs, dogsledding, 215 km of cross-country trails, and sleigh rides. Their Kinder Ski program teaches kids 3 to 10 years; 11 and up can take lessons with adults. A family Ski Package at the Chateau Frontenac lets you also visit Quebec City, home to the famous Winter Carnival (Jan. 26 to Feb. 11). For $850, we would sleep five nights, get four days of skiing at Mont-Sainte-Anne and the nearby Massif, and receive a 20 percent discount for meals and drinks. Ski school would cost an additional $125 for each of us for four hours of lessons. Call the resort at 1-800-463-1568 or the Chateau Frontenac at 1-800-441-1414.
SMUGGLER'S NOTCH: This Vermont resort about seven hours drive from Toronto guarantees family fun. That's right - if you and your kids don't enjoy the skiing, snowshoeing, tube sliding, skating, indoor tennis and pool, they will happily refund the program portion of your stay. Even more impressive is that at this 2,610-ft. resort with its 58 trails they take Canadian funds at par all season long. Some January and February weeks offer free Ski Camps for ages 3 to 12 and free child care for babies. To stay five days in a one-bedroom condo on site during the week of March 10, we would pay a total of $2,430, lift tickets and daily lesson included. Their March 17 Supersaver week, already sold out, would be $1411.20. Call 1-800-451-8752 for a free video.





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